Drunk-driv­ing laws aren’t tough enough

Take it from one who knows

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Bob Wake­ham

Just be­fore Christ­mas, I hap­pened to hear Pa­tri­cia Hynes-Coates, the pres­i­dent of Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ers Canada (MADD), the first per­son from New­found­land to head that or­ga­ni­za­tion, on CBC’s “Ra­dio Noon,” and found my­self moved and mes­mer­ized by the gut-wrench­ing story of how a drunk driver had killed her step­son.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve lis­tened as Hy­nesCoates re­lated the sad and tragic de­tails of the in­ci­dent three years ago when 27-year-old Ni­cholas was killed by Ron­ald This­tle, loaded drunk when he smashed his truck into the younger man’s mo­tor­cy­cle. (This­tle was sen­tenced to two years in prison; the Hynes-Coates fam­ily was sen­tenced to a life of mourn­ful loss).

But, for some rea­son — per­haps be­cause I was ac­tu­ally driv­ing while lis­ten­ing to the pro­gram, and could glance around and won­der if any of the cars and trucks in my area were be­ing driven by im­paired in­di­vid­u­als — I paid even more at­ten­tion as Hynes-Coates strug­gled to main­tain her com­po­sure and told the story of her step­son’s un­nec­es­sary and pre­ma­ture death.

The “Ra­dio Noon” pro­gram was part of that me­dia blitz that oc­curs each and ev­ery Christ­mas sea­son, as the com­mu­nity metaphor­i­cally locks arms in an ef­fort to draw at­ten­tion to the hideous crime of im­paired driv­ing; un­for­tu­nately, the cam­paign, as laud­able as it ob­vi­ously is, seems to be hav­ing lit­tle ef­fect, at least here in New­found­land. We were told very re­cently that the St. John’s metropoli­tan area had the high­est num­ber of con­vic­tions last year for im­paired driv­ing in the coun­try.

And, just a week or so af­ter Hynes-Coates had made her emo­tional plea on be­half of the in­nu­mer­able souls who’ve lost loved ones to drunk driv­ers, a Lark Harbour cou­ple in their 50s, Mar­i­lyn and Merle Sheppard, were knocked down and killed by a car driven by Wal­ter Joyce whom po­lice be­lieve was drunk. What made the tragedy par­tic­u­larly poignant was the fact that the Shep­pards and Joyce had been at the same fam­ily party, and that Mar­i­lyn Sheppard was Joyce’s sis­ter-in-law.

(It goes al­most with­out say­ing that Joyce is con­sid­ered in­no­cent un­til proven guilty. The bot­tom line is that the Sheppard fam­ily, and the tiny com­mu­nity of Lark Harbour, have been dev­as­tated).

When hear­ing that story out of Lark Harbour, and read­ing the statis­tics on im­paired driv­ing, you just have to won­der, as I say, whether even the most dra­matic of so­cial cru­sades, like the one headed by Hynes-Coates, is hav­ing an im­pact.

As I’ve men­tioned in this col­umn in the past, I was ar­rested in my 30s for im­paired driv­ing, and pleaded guilty (I was stag­ger­ingly drunk, and should have been nowhere near a steer­ing wheel); so, un­for­tu­nately, I do have a shame­ful per­spec­tive on a crime that af­fects thou­sands of fam­i­lies in this coun­try.

What I be­lieve, first of all, is that the type of cam­paign launched con­tin­u­ally by MADD, the po­lice, and the me­dia may, in­deed, have an in­flu­ence on the in­di­vid­ual not nor­mally prone to episodes of ex­ces­sive drink­ing who hap­pens to go over­board at a party or in a bar and has to de­cide whether to take a cab or get a ride with a buddy.

But the per­son who likes to have more than a few drinks with a cer­tain amount of reg­u­lar­ity (not that there’s any­thing in­her­ently wrong with that prac­tice) is not likely to be swayed by any sort of driv­ing pro­pri­ety, is not think­ing with any sort of logic or ra­tio­nale, when half-cut.

And then there is the es­ti­mated more than 10 per cent in so­ci­ety who are prob­lem drinkers, al­co­holics, who will not have their drink­ing and driv­ing habits guided or shaped in any way by pub­lic re­la­tions move­ments aimed at keep­ing im­paired driv­ers off the high­ways.

In my own case, I was driven to my house by the po­lice af­ter prac­ti­cally blow­ing the breath­a­lyzer apart at Fort Town­shend, waited a few min­utes, walked to the near­est bar, got even drunker, and even­tu­ally re­turned to my car, got be­hind the wheel, and headed home. I didn’t give a damn for any­body.

If I had had a chance meet­ing with some­one like Hynes-Coates that evening, I would have sim­ply told her where to go and how to get there.

And be­lieve me when I tell you there are many, many oth­ers who still func­tion the way I func­tioned back then. So is there an an­swer? It’s not ex­actly an orig­i­nal idea, but I’d sug­gest that the penal­ties for im­paired driv­ing are not nearly suf­fi­cient, that the sen­tences be dras­ti­cally and dra­mat­i­cally in­creased.

Take away the im­paired driver’s li­cence for years, not months, send him or her to prison for re­peated of­fences or even the first of­fence if it in­volves an ob­nox­iously high al­co­holic con­tent.

Con­fis­cate the im­paired driver’s ve­hi­cle. And make sure the name is re­leased to the me­dia. (An in­di­vid­ual can now lose a truck and a boat for poach­ing a few salmon, for mercy’s sakes, and have his or her name em­bar­rass­ingly pub­li­cized.) It would at least be a start. And would help make worth­while the highly com­mend­able and dif­fi­cult ef­forts of Pa­tri­cia Hynes-Coates and oth­ers.

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